On Springbrook Farm’s website, there is a video of farmer/owner Jean-Pierre Gagnon talking about raising the best meat possible. As he talks, a cow wanders into frame and starts to sniff at his hand. The 37-year-old Gagnon breaks mid-sentence to scratch the cow’s nose. His voice softens and he calls her “chère” – a term of endearment that means “dear”. Talking to him, you get the sense that these animals really are dear to him.
Springbrook Farm is located just outside of Rexton, New Brunswick, about an hour from Moncton. Started by Gagnon’s father, Paul, in 1979, the focus was originally on raising pigs. But like most Atlantic Canadian pig farms, it didn’t fare well during the 1980s when prices dropped. The elder Gagnon ended up working as an accountant, only tending to a few pigs for himself. But in 1990, he decided to start Springbrook up once again, only this time on a smaller scale.
The younger Gagnon wasn’t interested in farming when he was growing up, and like so many young people he headed out west to work as a carpenter. But by 2002, he made the decision to return to New Brunswick to start a family and become more self-sufficient. “My wife Sherry and I were going to have a baby, and after living in Calgary, we wanted to grow our own food,” he says.
Part of that quest included a return to an old family idea – rearing pigs. And, as it turned out, Gagnon was quite good at it. “People found out I was raising pigs and… started to ask me to raise pigs for them,” he says.
Word spread quickly and he knew he was on to something.
Soon the Gagnons decided to sell their products to more than just a few of their closest friends. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2002, they headed to the farmers market in Dieppe with half a side of beef, half a pig, a few chickens and a few dozen eggs. Within hours, they had sold out.
A business that started out on a whim soon found a very solid foundation, even beyond the loyal farmers market clients. Today, Gagnon’s most beloved customers are the children in the Francophone South school district, spanning from Rogersville to Memramcook.
Those kids get to feast on his chicken, beef, and pork thanks to a project organized by La Récolte de Chez-Nous (Really Local Harvest) – a co-op of farmers in Southeastern New Brunswick – and its subsidiary, Terroir Foods and Agrimarketing.
Terroir Foods and Agrimarketing is run by Patrick Henderson, a Belgian expatriate who lives in nearby Cocagne. Henderson is the head of a program that helps source local food for school lunches. He and Gagnon have known each other for almost a decade and share the same outlook on food.
“There is a disconnect between people and where their food comes from,” Henderson says. For him, the lunch program gives students an easy entry point into understanding food production. “I met a parent from Dieppe,” he says. “He told me that his daughter comes home from school and tells them everything they ate that day.”
Kids whose schools source from Terroir Foods and Agrimarketing are learning where and how food is produced, and are becoming knowledgeable and even excited about it. “Even teachers and staff eat in the cafeteria now. They didn’t before,” Henderson says. “The main thing I hear is that the quality of food is wonderful now.”
The program supplies 21 cafeterias in the Rexton area with locally produced meats and vegetables. As a result, Gagnon has garnered many new customers – the parents of students are now asking about his produce. When it comes to eating locally-sourced foods, he says kids are influencing the decisions of parents.
Still, for Gagnon it’s not just about finding a new market for his food, but about supporting food practices that he and his family have always believed in: small, sustainable production methods, working with and supporting local economies. He says he asks himself how the consumer would want this product to be grown or raised. “We get feedback so we can adjust and keep the standard the same.”
Maintaining that standard extends beyond taste to ethical considerations, as well. Gagnon recalls a time when he was low on pork for bacon. He asked his customers if they wanted him to purchase some on the open market. The customers declined, opting to go without bacon rather than having a potentially lower quality product.
“Your product is only as good as you make it,” he says. “Food is so intensely personal and you have to look at it that way. It’s a big deal.”